Masterpiece: Ritual vessel in the shape of a rhinoceros

An Extraordinary Vessel

By Asian Art Museum

Ritual vessel in the shape of a rhinocerosAsian Art Museum

One of a Kind
This rhinoceros-shaped vessel is extraordinary for two reasons: its shape and the text inscribed inside it.

Animal shapes are rare among Bronze Age Chinese vessels, but this one is unique for portraying a lifelike rhinoceros, a species now extinct in China.

The drooping belly gives a sense of the weight of the animal.

The folds of thick skin at the shoulders evoke a real rhino's hide.

The ears indicate a state of alertness.

The two horns suggest that it is a Sumatran rhinoceros.

The two-horned Sumatran rhinoceros roamed parts of the Asian mainland 3,000 years ago.

Fragment of oracle bone Fragment of oracle bone (Shang dynasty (approx. 1600-1050 BCE))Asian Art Museum

Some ancient oracle bones suggest that capturing rhinos and sacrificing them during rituals was a significant state event during the Shang dynasty (approx. 1600–1050 BCE).

The Endangered Sumatran Rhino (2019)Asian Art Museum

The Critically Endangered Sumatran Rhino
Climate change, along with the destruction of their habitat and overhunting—particularly for their horns—has caused the Sumatran rhinoceros to become extinct in China and mainland Asia, with the only viable population living in Indonesia. It is the most endangered of all rhinoceros species.

By Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

For endangered rhinos around the world, the best hope for survival is through continued protection under armed guard, captive breeding efforts, and the consolidation of small, fragmented populations into larger ones.

Rhino Story by Priya RamrakhaLIFE Photo Collection

Why Was the Horn Sought After?
Rhinoceros horn was prized in China as a material for luxury objects and was thought by some to be able to detect poison and increase male virility. The horn was ground for medicine and carved into elaborate poison-detecting drinking vessels for wealthy patrons.

Lotus-shaped cup with openwork handle (Qing dynasty (1644-1911))Asian Art Museum

This cup from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) closely follows the shape of the original rhinoceros horn. The raw material came as gifts from kingdoms to the west and south of China, then were carved by Chinese artisans.

An Important Inscription (2019)Asian Art Museum

An Important Inscription
The ancient Chinese characters commemorate a king's gift of cowry shells (ancient money) to one of his ministers.

Ritual vessel in the shape of a rhinoceros top viewAsian Art Museum

The inscription reads:

On the day dingsi [the 54th day of the ancient Chinese sixty-day cycle], the King inspected the Kui temple,
The King bestowed upon Xiaochen [Lesser Minister] Yu cowry shells from Kui,
It was the time when the King returned from the military campaign against the Renfang,
It was the King’s fifteenth sacrificial cycle, a day in the rong-ritual cycle.

Ritual vessel in the shape of a rhinoceros inscriptionAsian Art Museum

There has been academic interest in this vessel since scholars first published its inscription in 1845. Cast at the same time as the vessel, it is longer than others of its time, making it rare among Shang-dynasty inscriptions.

Ritual vessel in the shape of a rhinoceros right side viewAsian Art Museum

Casting the Vessel
This vessel was created using the piece-mold casting technique. It was cast in one piece, with two cores:

Ritual vessel in the shape of a rhinoceros top viewAsian Art Museum

one for the cavity in the body,

Ritual vessel in the shape of a rhinoceros bottom viewAsian Art Museum

and the other for the open space beneath the muzzle.

Ritual vessel in the shape of a rhinoceros x-ray imageAsian Art Museum

This X-ray image shows where the two cores created hollow spaces in the vessel: A) the cavity in the vessel and B) the open space beneath the muzzle.

Ritual vessel in the shape of a rhinoceros x-ray imageAsian Art Museum

Bronze spacers, called chaplets, were strategically placed to maintain a gap between the mold and the core, so molten bronze could flow between the two.

The areas where these spacers were in contact with the core and the outer sections of the mold are often visible in the finished piece or through X-ray imaging. Their existence indicates that this vessel was cast using the piece-mold technique.

Casting Bronze Vessels: The Piece-mold Process (no audio) (2019)Asian Art Museum

This video provides a basic overview of the piece-mold technique.

Includes open captions, no sound.

Ritual vessel in the shape of a rhinocerosAsian Art Museum

Compare and Contrast Ritual Bronze Vessels
This rhino-shaped vessel was used by the ruling elite in rituals. It is curious why the patron of the vessel would have it made in the form of a rhinoceros.

Ritual food vessel Ritual food vessel (Western Zhou period (approx. 1050-771 BCE))Asian Art Museum

Most ritual vessels of this type were more abstract and covered with precise and intricate designs, such as the one you see here.

More than just elegant objects, these vessels served as symbols of power and a means of communicating with one’s ancestors.

Ritual vessel in the shape of a rhinoceros right side viewAsian Art Museum

Credits: Story

Masterpiece presentation made possible with the generous support of the Kuo Family.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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